Christmas Monsters: Ten Terrors of the Yuletide

71 – Christmas Monsters: Ten Terrors of the Yuletide

Christmas is all about peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, hey, it’s the time to say “I love you”, right? We make jokes about Santa’s list including the kids who are “naughty and nice”, but no one really means it. Even the naughty kids seem to get presents for the holidays. All the bullies I grew up with got presents from Santa Claus (even if some of them probably had Judd Nelson-from-Breakfast Club-style Christmases.) And I’m the only person I know that actually got coal in my stocking from St. Nick if I wasn’t behaving. It seems like we don’t have to worry about Christmas monsters.

But why bother with the naughty? After all, you don’t buy things for naughty kids and the Christmas shopping season is what keep’s America’s retail chains in business. And don’t let me sound like I’m being critical, the commercialization of Christmas can be fun, giving gifts is fun. Celebrating when it would otherwise be disgustingly cold and dark outside is fun! That’s why the Germanic countries had a mid-Winter festival (called the Yule, where we get the whole “Yuletide Season” from) around the Winter Solstice to begin with, because they probably just didn’t want to walk off the nearest Alp because they had to hibernate for five months out of the year.

I know the horned helmets aren’t historically accurate, but they’re so much more fun!

So when these peoples were being Christianized, they found a Christian reason to celebrate in December – hey guys, let’s do Jesus’ birthday, and it worked. Now today, most people are considered “lucky” if they get Christmas Eve off in addition to Christmas Day, but back then they partied for twelve full days, or as one King’s directive when he was trying to integrate Christmas with his country’s Pagan traditions was to keep it going “until all the ale ran out”!

So, you’ve Christianized a nation and integrated your religious holiday with their traditional festival. But  what do you do with the characters that existed in their mythology?  Turn them into Christmas Monsters, of course, and use them to threaten children who are badly behaved. Genius!

After years in the shadows, we all know and love Krampus now (I mean he even has his own movie!) And the modern genius move was updating the tradition of Christmas monsters to something cute and seemingly harmless, the Elf on a Shelf, who won’t harm the children, but sits on the mantle all Holiday season with a mischievous smile and a watchful eye. Well, back in the old days, they used to have little  Holiday friends like the Elf on the Shelf too, but they weren’t quite so cute…

Look at me, I’m a billion dollar child control industry!

1. Père Fouettard

christmas monsters - Père Fouettard
Look closely, those are screaming children in the sack on his back. Happy Holidays!

This guy’s name in English translates to “Father Whipper” and he likes to terrify children in the North and East of France. The legend is that he was a butcher who killed three little rich boys in order to rob them (or in a more gruesome version, he drugs them, slits their throats, chops up their bodies, and stews them in a barrel, ho ho ho) but St. Nicholas shows up, resurrects the boys and forces Father Whipper to be his assistant, punishing naughty children during Christmas by whipping them. One company even named a fragrance after him that has “whip leather” as part of the scent, ummm…, sexy?

2. Frau Perchta

Christmas Monsters - Frau Perchta
Does this dress make me look fat?
This little lady enjoyed scaring the crap out of kids in Bavaria and Austria. Frau Perchta probably derives from a pagan goddess who made the snow, but the legend was that she would enter people’s homes during the Yuletide and would leave a small coin for the children if they were good, but if they were naughty she would slit open their bellies and fill them with garbageYeah, I’ll take coal instead. They also said that she had one big foot in the form of a goose’s foot, so she was supposed to be a shapeshifter as well…

3. Belsnickel

Belsnickel comes from the Rhineland in Germany and brings candy as well as beatings. He even came along to America with the Pennsylvania Dutch (who were German settlers, not from The Netherlands, the Dutch part comes from the German word for their own language, Deutsch) and Dwight plays him in an episode of The Office. 
He’s always raggedy and dirty and sometimes dresses up in women’s clothes (he is also known as The Christmas Woman, not really sure why they threw that in there) and shows up separately from St. Nicholas. The custom is that he comes in, throws candy down on the floor, and then hits the children on their backs with a switch as they run around grabbing it. Growing up in 19th Century Pennsylvania sounds like a real hoot!

4. Hans Trapp

Christmas Monsters - Hans Trapp
License and registration…
Hans Trapp is coming” was the phrase used to scare misbehaving children into cleaning up their act all over the Alsace-Lorraine region. He was said to be a greedy man who worshipped the Devil, was excommunicated by the Pope, and then went insane and developed a hunger for human flesh. He lays a trap for a kid and is about to devour him when God strikes him down with a thunderbolt.   He then accompanies St. Nick like Père Fouettard to deliver beatings to bad little Euro-boys and Euro-girls.
However, what makes this story extra fun is that it’s based on a real person. Hans Von Trotha was a German knight who had a feuded with a local abbot and ended up being excommunicated over politics. Because he was a tall man in real life (over 6’6) and the fact that he was exiled from the Church it was easy to spread rumors that he was a monster and eventually used as a bogeyman to frighten children (even though even after his excommunication, he didn’t go mad, he served as a diplomat in the French court.)

5. Mari Lwyd

Christmas Monsters - Mari Lwyd
Sugar cubes, bah! I’d rather eat brains!
The Mari Lwyd isn’t as much of a Christmas monster, as a Welsh tradition of young men running around singing and looking for free drinks. Wassail is a hot mulled alcoholic cider that is drunk in Winter and “wassailing” is like caroling, but you get free drinks at the end of it. So, it’s way better than caroling actually. What makes this wassailing ritual creepy is the fact that they dress up a horse’s skull (often with a little crown and Christmas ornaments for eyes) and someone runs around with it leading rowdy young men to sing in front of houses. This Christmas monster might not beat you, but he won’t stop singing at you until you give him a drink!

6. The Tomte

Christmas Monsters - The Tomten
Oh no, I’m not from Travelocity…
This little guy is actually kind of cute, like a garden gnome come to life. The Tomte is a Scandinavian creature who represents the spirit of the farm, the soul of the first farmer of the land. Back in the day, people would be buried in mounds on their farms and that’s where the Tomte was said to live. The Tomte cares for the livestock and helps with the fortune of the farm (as well as sometimes ruining the fortune of neighboring farms), but he is old fashioned, easily offended, and immensely strong (kind of like nature and the weather, the real enemy in a farmer’s life.)
If the farm is treated well, the Tomte might come to the front door and bring little presents for everyone on Christmas and is traditionally brought a porridge on Christmas night (he likes it with a little pat of butter on top). But if you forget the butter, the Tomato freaks out and  might kill one of your cows. Also, there was a legend that a maid once was bringing out porridge to the Tomte when she decided to eat it herself and our cute little buddy decided to beat her within inches of her life. Also, their bites were considered poisonous, so watch out for that.

7. Black Peter

Christmas Monsters - Black Peter
This guy is celebrated in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, places where they might not have the ugly history of Blackface Minstelry that the United States does, but they certainly do have a complicated history of race relations (cough cough the slave trade and colonialism cough cough). Black Peter or Zwarte Piete is another one of Santa’s little helpers who doles out the beatings to little children. And traditionally in Christmas parades, Black Peter is a white person who colors their face black.
The history of the character is interesting. In their traditions, Saint Nicholas lives in Spain in the off-season (much closer to Turkey which was his original hangout when he actually was alive. ) Black Peter is supposed to be a Moor from Spain (think Othello)  who Sinterklaas brings along when he comes in every year and while in the beginning Black Peter  was the punisher who carried bad kids in a  bag back to Spain, now he’s the guy who throws out candy to the kids in the Christmas parade.
Santa all over Europe has a long tradition of helpers who like to punish children, but it looks like that Black Peter was introduced in 1850 in a children’s book. And if you look at the rest of Santa’s helpers, it’s guys like Father Whipper or Hans Trapp, people that are associated with eating children, so is that what the book is comparing the Moors of Spain too (there was a Muslim Conquest of Spain, so this is part of the clash of cultures)? But you can see where this representation might be problematic. You’re equating the Moors with the devil, which is a decidedly Medieval way of thinking, at least Krampus doesn’t have any living relatives…

8. The Icelandic Yule Cat

Christmas Monsters - Jólaköttur Icelandic Yule Cat
Iceland – the country that puts legendary child murderers on stamps!

How many Christmas monsters has Björk sang about? Only Jólakötturinn, baby, the Icelandic Yule Cat! He’s a giant ferocious cat that roams the Icelandic countryside looking for children who haven’t received any new clothes for Christmas, and when he finds them, he devours them. That seems like a cruel double whammy doesn’t it? Not only do you not get new clothes for Christmas, but you also get eaten alive!

But it’s not really, Iceland is cold at Christmas and it’s dark most of that season. Children who finished their wool weaving work would get new clothes for the holiday. Getting new clothes is important because it means that you won’t freeze to death in the Winter! And you’ll need those clothes to stay inside and hide from Jólakötturinn’s mistress…

9. Gryla

Christmas Monsters - Gryla
Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me… I should have saved some naughty child for you!
Yeah, now we’re talking. Gryla is a straight up Scandinavian nightmare – a giantess who lives in a cave in Iceland’s volcanic lava fields and only comes out to find ingredients for her favorite food, which is a stew of naughty children. She’s like Frau Pechta but hungrier and with a bigger family. She’s been married three times, so obviously a loser in love, but she must be good in bed, because she’s got plenty of children…

10. The Yule Lads

Christmas Monsters - Iceland Yule Lads
We’re like the seven dwarfs except pervy and our mother eats children. Merry Christmas!
Gryla’s sons, The Thirteen Yule Lads, are more mischievous and less cruel than their mother (they just scare kids, they don’t eat them), but you still don’t want them in your house, even if they’re dressed like Santa Claus. One of them comes every night of the Twelve Days of Christmas and they’ve got names like Spoon-Licker, Sausage-Swiper, and Window-Peeper(!), so I think you can guess the kinds of activities that they like to engage in. They mostly just steal and play pranks and in modern times, our dollied up like our St. Nick, and leave little treats for well-behaved boys and girls.
But that’s just the modern version because Iceland has a long tradition of hidden people – creatures who live close to use but in a different plane of existence. Magnús Skarphéðinsson, who is the headmaster of Iceland’s Elf School, says “I have met more than 800 Icelanders that have seen elves, and 4 or 5 that have seen Yule Lads. They were old fashioned dressed, poor, a little dirty, a little rude and hungry, trying to get food.” So, take that with however many grains of salt as you like, but we’re going to have to go in deeper on Iceland in an episode because any country with an Elf School requires further investigation.
So, the next time you’re thinking about putting up an Elf on the Shelf, maybe you should think about a little Christmas Yule Cat, horse skull, or a framed picture of Père Fouettard with a bag full of screaming children – it’s cheaper and if you think the prospect of no presents scares kids straight, watch what happens when you tell them their intestines are going to be replaced with garbage!

Featured Song:  Sunspot‘s version of “Santa Baby

Santa Baby, slip a sable under the tree, For me.
been an awful good girl, Santa baby,
so hurry down the chimney tonight.Santa baby, a ’54 convertible too,
Light blue.
I’ll wait up for you dear,
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.Think of all the fun I’ve missed,
Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed,
Next year I could be just as good,
If you’ll check off my Christmas list,
Come and trim my Christmas tree,
With some decorations bought at Tiffany’s,
I really do believe in you,
Let’s see if you believe in me,

Santa baby, I wanna yacht,
And really that’s not a lot,
Been an angel all year,
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Santa honey, there’s one thing I really do need,
The deed
To a platinum mine,
Santa honey, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Think of all the fun I’ve missed,
Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed,
Next year I could be just as good,
If you’ll check off my Christmas list,
Come and trim my Christmas tree,
With some decorations bought at Tiffany’s,
I really do believe in you,
Let’s see if you believe in me,

Santa baby, forgot to mention one little thing,
A ring.
I don’t mean on the phone,
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight,
Hurry down the chimney tonight.